History The more you know

The history of soap

The history of soap, that is, of how the man begins to take care of his personal hygiene, has ancient origins that date back even to the Babylonian civilization formed between the III and II millennium BC. In the historical region of the Fertile Crescent, evidence has been collected of the use of a substance very similar to the soap that was preserved in terracotta cylinders dating back to 2800 BC. On a tablet in cuneiform characters of 2200 BC, The preparation of soap with water, alkaline substances, and cassia oil is well described.

In the technical sense, soap means salts of carboxylic acids with a long chain of carbon atoms usually obtained from natural raw materials. But before we get to this modern definition of street soap to do there is one. Let’s see the main stages of the history of soap.

History of soap: the Egyptians

The use of soap was certainly widespread around 1550 BC also in Egypt as evidenced by the Ebers papyrus (end of the XVIII dynasty) which shows how the ancient Egyptians used a soap that was made with animals and vegetables oils and alkaline salts. More generally the first types of soap in antiquity were however used more for the cleaning of the fabrics than for personal hygiene, also because they were not exactly a panacea for the skin.

To less aggressive soap manufacturing techniques arrived, as we will see better in a moment, the Arabs. Techniques that were perfected after the time of the Crusades, thanks to greater use of vegetable fats and soothing substances such as balms. We remember that the soap landed in Europe with the Venetian and Genoese merchants and it was considered an asset that we can define as a luxury given the money that noblewomen and gentlemen spent in order to procure it.

The soap near the Greeks, the Romans and in the Middle Ages

The history of soap “does not pass” for ancient Greek and Roman culture. Greeks and Romans did not use soap but scented and strigil oils, or curved metal tools (in short, scrapers) with which dirt was removed from the skin. This does not mean that the soap (in Latin sapo) was not known.

Pliny the Elder, in his Historia Naturalis, describes the technique with which detergents used to clean hair could be obtained, stigmatizing at the same time the widespread use of germans and roosters. The latter prepared the soaps with tallow, ash and lime and used them as cosmetics. The Greek doctor Galen (129-201) would have been the first to indicate the use of soap as a detergent instead of lye.

In the Middle Ages, the most important centers of soap production were Savona in Italy and Marseille in France, followed by Genoa, Venice, and Alicante (Spain). A production that will be refined during the 16th century and that will remain artisanal for at least another century and a half.

The real inventors of soap are the Arabs

The historical-archaeological studies assign the primacy of the true inventors of modern soap to the Arabs. So the history of soap as we understand it today is an Arab story. Soaps were produced for personal hygiene with a base of olive oil, thyme or laurel, still the main elements of Aleppo soap. For the saponification, caustic soda (Al-Soda Al-Kawia) was used for the first time, a method practically used until the modern age.

From the 7th century onwards, soap was regularly produced in Palestine (now the West Bank) in Nablus and in Iraq (Kufa and Basra). The Arab soap was colored and perfumed and could be both liquid and solid. In the manuscripts of Al-Razis (854-925), it is clearly explained how to make soap, as well as in other 13th century manuscripts, containing real recipes for saponification. In Europe, the soap will arrive in the 800 with the Arab expansion in Spain and Sicily and its use will spread even more with the end of the crusades.

Soap in the modern age

The history of hand-made soap ends with the industrial revolution. At the end of the 17th century the French chemist Nicolas Leblanc invented a procedure to obtain soda, an alkaline substance, from common salt. The production of caustic soda from salt solutions perfected in the following years was a driving force for the industrialization of soap production.

Subsequent advances in chemistry during the 19th century laid the scientific foundations for the large-scale manufacture of soap. Of course even today it is possible to buy, perhaps spending a little more, precious soaps produced in a traditional way, made with ancient techniques and of a quality far superior to those of the “commercial” competitors (see synthetic detergents); a niche market, a bit like that of soap debuts in Europe.

Taking a step back and returning to the history of soap it is in England that the first industrial productions start and then spread to the rest of the globe. The sale was accompanied by advertising campaigns that linked the use of soap to personal hygiene and therefore to health.

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